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Bach's 'inexhaustible cosmos'

Gaby Reucher
December 6, 2021

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the world's most celebrated composers. A new biography now reveals the man behind the 18th-century musician.

 Michael Maul, man holding up book that reads, Bach
Michael Maul presents his Bach biographyImage: Lehmstedt Verlag/Foto: Günter Müller

We know that Johann Sebastian Bach was a musical genius.

His timeless "Christmas Oratorio," the cantatas composed while cantor of St. Thomas church in Leipzig, the "Well Tempered Clavier" set of preludes and "The Art of Fugue" all retain a lasting influence on the music world.

In his bilingual English-German illustrated biography, titled "Bach," Bach Festival Leipzig artistic director Michael Maul takes a look at other aspects of the great 18th-century composer's life

He describes a man who repeatedly offended his employers and in later years increasingly withdrew from church music. "There are many Bach biographies where Bach is portrayed as an eternal winner," says Michael Maul, who reviewed documents that allow for a different interpretation. "My impression is that there were much stronger cultural-political conflicts in Bach's time that people didn't know about," the renowned Bach researcher told DW.

A daily dose of Bach

Maul has researched Johann Sebastian Bach for more than 20 years — and feels he is far from done. Too many questions remain unanswered, and new notes or fragments of manuscripts still turn up.

In his biography, Maul put together many of these pieces of the mosaic in chronological order. "I have tried to reflect the state of Bach research and to insert things that I have not yet seen written anywhere," he says.

St Thomas Boys Choir Leipzig, children in blue sailor suits singing
Bach instructed the famous St. Thomas Boys' ChoirImage: Matthias Knoch

The Bach expert tells readers about lesser know sides of Bach — who skipped class in school, beat up amateur bassoonists, and used bogus applications to play potential employers off against each other and demand more salary. He uncovers "aberrations in Bach research," including theories exaggerating Bach's attachment to number symbolism.

Rare facts about Bach

Michael Maul grew up surrounded by Bach's music. His father was an avid piano player, "and he had two musical household gods, one was Beethoven and the other was Bach," Maul says.

Unlike Ludwig van Beethoven, however, Johann Sebastian Bach left few personal writings or statements, just one letter to his friend Georg Erdmann.

Bach's childhood is hinted at in the obit his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote, including that he would secretly borrow his brother's music book to copy the pieces of "famous masters."

The gaps in Bach's biography become apparent everywhere, Maul argues in the preface to his illustrated chronicle.

But even sheet music on yellowed paper can provide fascinating insights into Bach's working methods. Marginal notes on one of the music sheets show Bach already had the next idea in mind while he was still writing a work.

"He spends most of his time finding a theme, that's the creative part," Maul says, adding that the rest is craftsmanship, when "the brain obviously switches to autopilot mode" and the composer penned what he had in mind.

He must have been under enormous pressure: from 1723, in his early days as cantor at St. Thomas church in Leipzig, Bach wrote a new cantata every week.

Too demanding for the St.Thomas choir

As cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote music for church services, but it was so demanding that musicians and singers were often overwhelmed, in particular the famous St. Thomas Boys' Choir, which he trained.

When the city council decided to open the St. Thomas School to more children from the poorer classes, Bach protested because musical talent was no longer to play a major role in the choice of students, leading to a fierce dispute between the composer and his employer.

The council minutes give a glimpse of Bach's personality from the perspective of the council, which labeled him as unruly and obstinate, as a cantor who didn't seem that interested in working.

Johann Sebastian Bach and a portrait of a young man
Is the man portrayed on the right the young composer?Image: Lehmstedt Verlag/Bach-Archiv Leipzig

"Imagine being extremely gifted like Bach was, exploring areas where hardly anyone could follow him," says Michael Maul. Bach was not very diplomatic, so as a result, he increasingly withdrew.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a tragic figure in this respect, despite his musical genius, Maul argues.

In his last years, Bach devoted himself more to secular music and created demanding works including the "Clavier-Übungen" volume of keyboard practice, the famous "Goldberg Variations" and "The Art of Fugue."

Why Bach is still fascinating

Bach's appearance is as elusive. On the cover of Maul's biography is a famous painting by Gottlob Haussmann, one of the rare portraits of the composer. 

But the Bach expert mentions a possible portrait of the composer as a young man. The Bach Archive has a portrait by an unknown 18th-century artist that surfaced in 2016, with a handwritten note on the back suggesting it is a portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. "The picture is currently being examined with all kinds of technical aids," Maul says, adding that the eyes appear to bear a resemblance to the Haussmann painting.

handwritten notes for a canon by Bach.
A Bach canon at Harvard University's Houghton Library Image: Lehmstedt Verlag

Research into Johann Sebastian Bach's life seems to be a never-ending story. Maul hopes his biography will bring the human side of the composer to life for readers, pointing out the fascination of "this mixture of music god and a man with rough edges, who made it anything but easy for those around him."

To round off the biography, Maul quotes what he calls a "divine" musician joke at the end.

A musician goes to heaven and is looking forward to finally getting an answer to the question of whether God prefers to listen to Mozart or Bach, the joke goes. As he stands before the throne of God, he hears a Mozart melody, leading him to reflect to the Lord: "On earth, many people think you must love to listen to Bach, but I see now that you rather listen to Mozart." Whereupon the creator of the world looks at him kindly and replies, "I am Bach."

"Bach: A Pictorial Biography" by Michael Maul is published by Lehmstedt Verlag.

Saxophone in a monastery

This article has been translated from German.